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By design: James Clerk Maxwell and the evangelical unification of science


James Clerk Maxwell's electromagnetic theory famously unified many of the Victorian laws of physics. This essay argues that Maxwell saw a deep theological significance in the unification of physical laws. He postulated a variation on the design argument that focused on the unity of phenomena rather than Paley's emphasis on complexity. This argument of Maxwell's is shown to be connected to his particular evangelical religious views. His evangelical perspective provided encouragement for him to pursue a unified physics that supplemented his other philosophical, technical and social influences. Maxwell's version of the argument from design is also contrasted with modern ‘intelligent-design’ theory.

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Paul Theerman , ‘James Clerk Maxwell and religion’, American Journal of Physics (April 1986) 54, pp. 312317

‘The Maxwell literature and British dynamical theory’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1982) 13, pp. 175205

Robert Kargon , ‘Model and analogy in Victorian science: Maxwell's critique of the French physicists’, Journal of the History of Ideas (1969) 30, pp. 423436

R.V. Jones , ‘James Clerk Maxwell at Aberdeen, 1856–1860’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London (June 1973) 28, pp. 5781

John Brooke and Geoffrey Cantor , Reconstructing Nature: The Engagement of Science and Religion, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 141246

Matthew Stanley , ‘The pointsman: Maxwell's demon, Victorian free will, and the boundaries of science’, Journal of the History of Ideas (2008) 69, pp. 467491

Aileen Fyfe , Science and Salvation: Evangelical Popular Science Publishing in Victorian Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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